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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Behind-the-scenes: Food photography shoot for Mad Mex

Food photography? It's not so hard is it?

I know it is. As a food blogger, personal experience tells me I have much to learn when it comes to droolworthy food photography.

Hence when Billy contacted me to get involved with a food photography job for Mad Mex I leapt at the opportunity. Officially I was hired as his lighting assistant. Primarily this meant I was in charge of the softbox lights. It also meant I was the resident gopher for coffee runs etc.

What it did provide me with was an opportunity to see what really goes on behind a food photography shoot.

Setting up the tacos

The brief was to shoot photos of the Mad Mex menu items for a new pictorial menu board. Our food stylist for the day was Peter G from Souvlaki for the Soul. His kit bag included brushes, tweezers and cotton buds, tools that wouldn't have looked out of place with a makeup artist.

Billy arrived with two soft boxes, tripod and camera. Large sheets of plain cardboard clipped to a stool created the white backdrop. The makeshift studio was set up on the bench table at one of the Mad Mex outlets, closed on Sunday.

The brief was to photograph the Mexican menu items so each ingredient could be seen clearly, whilst still keeping a natural look to the food. This is precisely as hard as it sounds, particularly when we're talking about tacos, burritos and quesadillas.

Brushing extra sauce onto the meat for shine

A Mad Mex chef prepared the ingredients before Peter G worked his magic. Because the photographs would be used for a menu board, the images had to be clean and unclutttered. The problem of how to prop up three tacos on their own was soon solved with a nearby menu holder, heavy enough to support the tacos but small enough to be hidden from view. Resourcefulness and lateral thinking were common themes throughout the day.

Making final adjustments

Brushing away the crumbs

Billy provides advice after viewing the camera image

Patience is paramount with food photography. After a few test photos, one piece of meat in the taco would be carefully extricated and swapped for another. Strips of meat were turned this way or that so the grill marks could be more easily seen. The tacos were photographed angled one way, and then angled the other way. Billy, as always, was measured in his photos. Once the set-up was done, only a few shots were required. The taco photo shoot lasted close to an hour.

Plating the nachos

After the marathon taco shoot, each subsequent dish seemed to progress a little faster.

Nachos ready to be photographed

Nachos were photographed in two different set-ups, one in a cardboard tray, the next in a foil-lined basket.

The quesadilla was one of the trickier dishes to shoot - requiring a view of both the toasted tortilla surface, as well as the filling in the middle. Billy was ever mindful of common perspective, ensuring all the foods were photographed at the same angle.

Creating the burrito

Wrapping a burrito so it stays open but appears neat was easily solved by Peter G. He was also unfazed by the challenge of building a filling that had distinct identifiable layers, tricky when it involves rice, beans, diced tomato, steak strips, lettuce and cheese.

Adding tomato pieces with tweezers

Making final adjustments

And with his eye to the camera, Billy masterminded the entire operation. I was surprised by how few shots were taken - most involved only three or four photos, but each one was near perfect.

Checking the images with the client

It was a long day - I had the least to do and I was utterly exhausted by the end of it. Yet throughout the day, Billy and Peter G maintained their good humour, knuckling down for bouts of intense concentration and focus when required.

And the final shots? After much waiting we were excited to find out the images from the shoot are now in use. Check them out at a Mad Mex near you!

Mad Mex menu board at Macquarie Centre
featuring photos by Billy and styling by Peter G
- with thanks to Karen from Citrus and Candy for taking the photo!

Mad Mex - Fresh Mexican Grill

Circular Quay - AMP Plaza Foodcourt
Lower Level, Shop 8C, 50 Bridge St, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9231 3663

Shop 2, 241-247 Crown St, Darlingurst, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9331 7788

Macquarie Centre
Level 4, Shop 406A
Cnr Herring Rd and Waterloo Rd, North Ryde, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9889 7899

Tuggerah Westfield
Shop 1038C, 50 Wyong Rd, Tuggerah
Tel: +61 (02) 4355 4880

Blacktown Westpoint Shopping Centre
Shop 4005A, 17 Patrick St, Blacktown
Tel: +61 (02) 8678 4360

40 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 12/22/2009 02:31:00 am


  • At 12/22/2009 5:01 am, Blogger joey@forkingaroundsydney said…

    I love an official lighting assistant that also takes photos of the shoot! LOL. It certainly looks interesting, especially to us amateurs who think it's as easy as just buying a super expensive camera and snapping away. :-) Love the food stylist and his assortment of brushes too.

  • At 12/22/2009 5:24 am, Blogger Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul said…

    I remember this day! It was a lot of fun. And those tweezers really came in handy for all those intricate ingredients! It was a pleasure to work alongside you and Billy!

  • At 12/22/2009 5:42 am, Anonymous Kitchen Butterfly said…

    What an amazing opportunity....to see and watch and learn from pros. And thanks for the details. Lately, I've been trying to 'think' my photos through...and I will be geting brushes and tweesers along with some Lowel Ego lights soon!

  • At 12/22/2009 6:43 am, Anonymous Trissa said…

    What a great experience! I picked up a few tips from this blog! If you ever need an extra coffee assistant - that's me!

  • At 12/22/2009 9:15 am, Blogger Rambling Tart said…

    Wow! What a lot of work you guys did! :-) So fun to have this behind-the-scenes glimpse :-)

  • At 12/22/2009 9:59 am, Anonymous Tina said…

    Awesome behind the scenes post!

  • At 12/22/2009 10:06 am, Anonymous Suwandi said…

    It's great that you shared with us what really happened behind the scene. Lots of people aren't aware the amount of planning, preparation, and work behind the apparently simple food image. Keep sharing!

    If you have time to spare, visit my food photo blog.

  • At 12/22/2009 11:09 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    OOOHHH How funnnn!!! What a great opportunity to learn! Great work guyyss

  • At 12/22/2009 11:15 am, Anonymous billy@atablefortwo said…

    that was so much fun wasnt it? :D I just like Peter G provided lighthearted humour the whole day makes the process seems a lot easier and faster.

  • At 12/22/2009 11:20 am, Anonymous The Ninja said…

    Well done team. Although that makes it sound like I'm part of the team, which I wish I was...

    I will boast about my connection to the photographer and lighting-assistant whenever I go to Mad Mex hereon after.

  • At 12/22/2009 11:21 am, Anonymous Peter said…

    Looks like fun - and a challenge. Haven't they heard of the taco's with the flat bottom that some kid invented? ;)

  • At 12/22/2009 11:21 am, Blogger OohLookBel said…

    Glad you had your own camera ready on the day to capture it all! The fact that it takes so much work makes me feel a bit better when my own photos look nothing like the pros' :)

  • At 12/22/2009 12:05 pm, Anonymous Christie @ Fig&Cherry said…

    How nice to see all the people I know working together!

  • At 12/22/2009 12:34 pm, Anonymous Jacq said…

    Sounds like such an interesting day! Great post - its nice to know what goes on behind the scenes in a food photoshoot

  • At 12/22/2009 1:14 pm, Blogger Karen | Citrus and Candy said…

    Fascinating to see Billy and Peter do their thing. And I'm sure you were a fabulous lighting assistant!

    Hehe and thanks for the mention. Makes me feel like I'm part of the 'team' now lol.

  • At 12/22/2009 1:34 pm, Blogger Kate said…

    Congratulations Billy, Peter G and Helen. No one realises when ordering mindlessly off a menu board the time and effort taken to create that very picture.

  • At 12/22/2009 2:52 pm, Blogger Stephcookie said…

    What a great post! Great to see all the behind the scenes shots and it looks like it turned out great! Time to grab myself a pair of tweezers so I feel more like a food stylist heehee! :D

  • At 12/22/2009 4:33 pm, Blogger Forager said…

    What a fascinating insight into the magic behind food porn! Loved the post Helen!

  • At 12/22/2009 4:49 pm, Blogger Simon Leong said…

    i think i'd get too frustrated of not being able to eat the food if it smelt really good :-(. i guess this falls into the deceptive marketing world of a product — i've yet to come across many dishes that actually look the way they are presented in their marketing material. for example when have you ever seen a big mac provided to you as it's shown in the menu ;-) so much goes on behind the scenes to make it perfect like but more often than not the customer will never receive something so noice

  • At 12/22/2009 5:01 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Great insight of a behind-the-scene photo shoot session. What a great experience! Love to watch the concerntration and dedicated of billy and peter at work :)

  • At 12/22/2009 5:37 pm, Anonymous Amy said…

    Wow. That must've been very exciting and exhausting at the same time. Fantastic oppurtunity for the ultimate foodie. Makes me hungry...

  • At 12/22/2009 6:04 pm, Anonymous Bellyrumbles said…

    Loved the behind the scenes blog

  • At 12/22/2009 6:27 pm, Anonymous Simon said…

    What a learning experience huh?

    I had a number of similar experiences with friends who run a photography busniess. It's interesting to see how much work and time goes into a single shot, how the lighting is setup and what sort of affect it has on the end result.

    Props to all involved with the photo shoot. I've seen the photoboard in person and it looks pretty good :)

  • At 12/23/2009 3:25 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Joey - Ahh yes I'm good at multi-tasking! The work behind the shoot was impressive and Billy and Peter G were such consummate professionals :)

    Hi Peter G - I think you provided most of the fun that day! lol. You did a fab job with the food styling that day. I will never look at a taco in the same way ever again!

    Hi Kitchen Butterfly - Have fun with your food styling! I think like most things food styling is all about practice!

    Hi Trissa - It was amazing to see the effects Billy and Peter G with only a handful of tools. Your pics already look great :) and lol, perhaps you can carry the sugar!

    Hi Rambling Tart - I didn't do much on the day but yes, it was a fantastic opportunity to see two professionals at work :)

    Hi Tina - Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    Hi Suwandi - I think a lot of jobs involve untold amounts of work behind-the-scenes. Love your food photography blog - looks great!

    Hi FFichiban - I observed a lot but not sure how much I actually absorbed! lol. Billy and Peter G deserve all the kudos!

    Hi Billy - It was a long day but Peter G injected plenty of fun into it. Thanks so much for the opportunity Billy - I have so much to learn!

    Hi The Ninja - I'm sure I saw you hiding in the rafters that day. Or was that your body double? lol

    Hi Peter - lol! Billy and Peter G negotiated all challenges with aplomb, and without dodgy Mexican accents too :)

    Hi Belle - I wasn't sure about taking photos but so glad I did. It was all so fascinating. And I prefer to call the non-professional look "rustic" and "charming". lol

    Hi Christie - It was a fun day. Always nice to work with people you know and get along with - the day went by so much faster!

    Hi Jacq - Glad you enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look, and I'm so excited the photos are finally up in stores.

    Hi Karen - Oh yes, the art of switching on lights - it's all in the wrist :)

    Thanks so much for getting the photo to me. The post wouldn't have been complete without it!

    Hi Kate - I often look at supermarket catalogues and wonder how they got certain images so neat and clean. lol! But yes, a very good point.

    Hi Stephcookie - Yes I think we should all have a little metal tool box with paraphernalia :)

    Hi Forager - Lots of effort behind food porn, lol, although there was no trickery here!

    Hi Simon Food Favourites - Presentation is everything, I supppose! I think as long as the product looks reasonably similar to the picture most customers won't complain, but yes, a squashed burger is never a good look. lol

    Hi Ellie - Ah yes hadn't really thought about how serious Billy and Peter G looked in the photos :)

    Hi Amy - It was both exciting and exhausting. I realised I have much to learn, but also goes to show what you can achieve if you put your mind to it.

    Hi Bellyrumbles - Glad you enjoyed the post :)

    Hi Simon - Always an insight to find out what goes on behind-the-scenes. A lot of things get taken for granted!

  • At 12/23/2009 10:36 am, Anonymous Clovis said…

    Mad Mex Mgmt Says,

    "we really enjoyed working with Billy, Peter G and the Grab Your Fork team. This was a learning process for us as well as we had limited food images before the photo shoot. We were thrilled with the results and the number of shots we were able to get in an epic 10 hour day!!"

    Thank you all so much!

    Mad Mex Mgmt.

  • At 12/23/2009 7:02 pm, Anonymous Lori said…

    Fascinating post. I love seeing others' food photography setups, one can learn so much.

  • At 12/27/2009 9:20 pm, Anonymous laire @ therawnoodle said…

    Wow, what a fun and exciting experience that must have been! Great post! :)

  • At 12/28/2009 1:30 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Clovis - It was a pleasure working with you. A long day indeed and I agree, Billy and Peter did a great job with the photos!

    Hi Lori - I agree. So much to learn about food photography. I have much to learn!

    Hi Laire - Glad you enjoyed the post :)

  • At 1/05/2010 9:02 am, Blogger AY said…

    Oooh, just a bit of a backlog of your posts for me to read Helen, but that's an awesome opportunity! I had a brief 6-month stint in a bread company last year and went to several food photo shoots and am still amazed at the amount of effort they put into each food item. The food artist literally uses his/her tools like makeup eh? Hope you enjoyed it and didn't feel like eating too much of it on set! Haha.

  • At 1/06/2010 11:08 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi AY - It was a great experience, and whilst the smells of food cooking made us hungry, by the time everyone had touched and repositioned the food, you didn't really feel like eating the props! lol

  • At 1/24/2010 11:04 pm, Anonymous An Affair With Fashion said…

    Oooh this post is fantastic! Thank you for unveiling the truth! Now I realise why my shots look sooo ordinary.

  • At 1/24/2010 11:05 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi An Affair With Fashion - I think it's amazing how many things take place behind-the-scenes. I certainly learnt a lot myself that day too :)

  • At 3/01/2010 2:03 am, Anonymous divemummy said…

    to paraphrase WC Fields, working with tacos beats working with children or animals

  • At 3/04/2010 5:02 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi divemummy - Very true. Finicky work but at least no temper tantrums!

  • At 3/16/2010 10:17 pm, Anonymous Latso said…

    Thanks for the write up. I love food shots!

  • At 3/17/2010 2:05 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Latso - I always find it fascinating to go behind-the-scenes to see how things work. Glad you enjoyed the post. I have a must greater appreciation for food photography now!

  • At 6/15/2010 11:10 am, Blogger Laura said…

    I had no idea so much was involved in food photography.

    I love mad mex, its delicious & now i can say i know the guy who photographed the menu pictures.

    great post.

  • At 6/28/2010 12:50 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Laura - Glad you enjoyed the post. It's true you often take for granted that things that happen seamlessly behind the scenes. I had much fun and have a new-found appreciation for food styling and food photography!

  • At 10/30/2013 4:39 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    I know this is an old post from some time back, but it made me laugh and reminisce from an Old Bill Bailey where he jokes about a group of food stylists crowded around a kebab...

    Fascinating to watch the behind the scenes nonetheless!

  • At 6/16/2014 11:52 pm, Anonymous Paul said…

    What effort. Just goes to show how much goes on behind the scenes that most don't realise. The results are certainly worth it though :)


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